Ever since New Testament times there has been a
tension in the Church between two kinds of Christian discipleship. The
young lad in the story usually known as "The Feeding of the Five
Thousand" in John 6.1-21 brings out this tension for us all.
On the one hand is the heroic approach. "Sell all that thou hast ...
and come, follow me" (Mark 10.21). "If anyone comes to me and does not
hate his own father and mother and wife and children ... and even his
own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14.26). "Enter by the narrow
gate ... For the gate is narrow and way is hard that leads to life and
those who find it are few" (Matthew 7.14�15). On this view, to be a
Christian is to be one of a spiritual elite, the special armed services
elite of the Kingdom of God. "For many are called, but few are chosen"
But these challenging quotations from Jesus are not the whole story.
There is also a gentler and more welcoming side to his call, most
familiar - at least to the older ones among us - from the "comfortable
words" in the old Anglican Prayer Book communion service: "Come unto me
all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you ... "
Both the harsh and the welcoming aspects of discipleship have their
exemplary characters in the gospels. Among the "heroes" is the poor
widow, who threw into the Temple treasury the two tiny coins that were
her entire wealth - and therefore, said Jesus, of more worth than all
the larger contributions made by the wealthy, who could well afford it
And a classic among the "welcomed" is Zacchaeus, the corrupt and
despised tax-collector, whom Jesus befriends and calls out from the
crowd long before the he shows any sign of repentance or makes any
promise to live honestly in the future.
To which camp does the young lad with his five loaves and two fishes
belong? What kind of a role model does he provide for us?
The common view is that he was a type of hero. Like the widow with
her two mites, he brings all that he has - pathetically little though it
might seem - and offers it all to Jesus.
That is certainly true as far as it goes. But since most of us do not
belong to the heroic school of disciples, I want to press the question a
little harder, and see whether there might be some word of encouragement
in his story for more ordinary mortals.
So I look again at the details of the story and I find myself asking,
"Why does he have five loaves but only two fishes?"
We can only guess, of course. The author of John's Gospel does not
tell us. Perhaps two fish were all his mother gave him. But having once
been a small boy, and knowing something of their attitude to sandwiches
- and the relative attractiveness of the bread and the filling - I can
picture a somewhat different explanation for his depleted picnic.
I think that maybe he started off with five rolls each with a fish in
it. But the day was long, and some sustenance would have been in order
once or twice as the hours passed. Barley loaves were hard and coarse
compared with those made from wheat flour, so the juvenile temptation to
concentrate on the filling rather than the outside of the sandwich would
have been especially strong.
If my drawing of the scene is correct, then it is still true that the
boy gave Jesus all that he had. But what he did have was only the
leftovers of his meal, not the whole thing. He had already eaten what he
When I have suggested this possibility on other occasions, people
have commonly leapt to the boy�s defence and accused me of an
unwarranted slander on his character. But my chief concern here is not
with the boy but with Jesus. The purpose of my speculation is not to
belittle the lad�s offering, but to focus on what Jesus does with it,
and what lesson this might hold for his response to our own
If someone makes a truly sacrificial offering to God, then we might
feel that in some way God is bound to do great things with it.
Outstanding human generosity almost demands a reciprocal generous use of
But in my version of the story, we are not dealing with a case of
sacrificial giving. More a case of, "Well, here you are Jesus. It�s not
much, but it�s what I�ve got left." And surely it is an even greater
miracle if the Lord can use even such half-hearted gifts to feed his
I am not saying that the take-home message of the story is a negative
policy statement reading, "Live for yourself and give God the
leftovers". What I am trying to do is to draw some positive
encouragement from this story for that majority of Christians for whom
the heroic approach is not a realistic option.
The positive message is this: "So maybe in an ideal world we should
all live sacrificial Christian lives, give away our total possessions,
and throw ourselves and our families upon God�s bounty. But in the real
world - where we actually live and make our day-to-day financial
decisions about personal needs, family loyalties, and Christian
discipleship - we need not despair when such total commitment proves
The story of the five loaves and two fishes shows that whatever the
shortcomings on our side may be, anything and everything we offer as
part of our Christian stewardship of time, money, and abilities, can and
will be taken and used by God, for our good and to his glory.